Monday, July 26, 2021

John V. Petrocelli's "The Life-Changing Science of Detecting Bullshit"

John V. Petrocelli is an experimental social psychologist and Professor of Psychology at Wake Forest University. His research examines the causes and consequences of BS and BSing in the way of better understanding and improving BS detection and disposal. Petrocelli’s research contributions also include attitudes and persuasion and the intersections of counterfactual thinking with learning, memory and decision making. His research has appeared in the top journals of his field including the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Petrocelli applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Life-Changing Science of Detecting Bullshit, and reported the following:
From page 99:
Social psychologists refer to the mental tension created when someone simultaneously holds two conflicting thoughts as cognitive dissonance. The act of fact-checking questionable beliefs is in contradiction with one’s desire to hold those beliefs because fact-checking may prove those beliefs wrong. People are motivated to reduce cognitive dissonance when it emerges or prevent it from emerging in the first place. Rather than admitting their mistakes and letting go of bullshit-based beliefs, people tend to double down on their beliefs and rationalize contradictory evidence in order to reduce dissonance. For the very same reasons, while political conservatives sort of know that Pope Francis didn’t endorse Donald Trump as he campaigned for the presidency, and that Hillary Clinton wasn’t directing a pedophile ring out of a Washington, DC, pizza parlor, they really want it to be true. They prevent dissonance from emerging altogether by not bothering to factcheck these claims. They’d rather believe this bullshit because it fits perfectly with what they’d like to believe about these presidential candidates.

Although bullshit-based beliefs can persist in the face of scientific evidence, they shouldn’t. Holding some bullshit-based beliefs will only lead to greater bullibility and suboptimal judgments and decisions.
I believe page 99 of The Life-Changing Science of Detecting Bullshit only moderately supports the Page 99 Test. Page 99 is the final page of a chapter entitled “Bullibility: Bernard and His Bullible Gang” and it is specific to motivational bullibility, or a preference for bullshit over truth and facts. Although some people repeatedly fall for deceptive influences, most everyone behaves in a gullible fashion on occasion. More generally, research suggests that many people suffer from bullshit blindness, or bullibility—accepting bullshit as fact by failing to infer from available social cues that the bullshitter has a disregard for the truth or has failed to take reasonable action to find truth. A gullible individual may believe something despite signs of dishonesty, but the bullible individual is a relatively lazy thinker who doesn’t even care about signs of dishonesty. Page 99 deals with the motivational reasons people are bullible. Although page 99 is part of but one sub-section on bullibility (motivational) and there are four others (personal, contextual, emotional, and cognitive), it does represent the quality of the whole in the way of its completeness. However, The Life-Changing Science of Detecting Bullshit offers readers much more, including when bullshitting behavior (communicating with little to no regard for truth, genuine evidence, or established knowledge and talking about things one knows little to nothing about) is most likely to occur, the many unwanted consequences of bullshit, how best to detect bullshit, and how best to dispose of this most insidious communicative substance at work, home and play.

The reasons people fall for unwanted bullshit—permitting it to affect their thoughts, feelings, behaviors and decisions—have to do with the imperfections in their thinking, untrained critical thinking/inferential tools, and the questions they fail to ask bullshitters. Although people are generally reasonable under ideal conditions of data collection, they are often confined to the irresistible products of their own personal experiences. They are not always the products of irrationality, but of flawed rationality because personal experience is a problematic data collection method. Instead of providing us with clear information that would enable us to “know better”, personal experience often provides us with messy data that are random, unrepresentative, ambiguous, incomplete, inconsistent, indirect (secondhand), unpalatable. When people rely on messy data for the development and maintenance of their most confident beliefs, rather than the fuller picture of truth, they become subject to bullshit. The Life-Changing Science of Detecting Bullshit details research-based habits that will help anyone weed out bullshit and make smarter decisions.
Visit John V. Petrocelli's website.

--Marshal Zeringue